Desert Road Trip

Every winter I swear I’m going to get away from the cold and go to Arizona, where I have quite a few friends. This year I finally did it.

I planned to camp for the first five days, but after that I’d be staying with friends until the last part of my trip, when I would leave Tucson for Carlsbad Caverns. So although this was a road trip (3,000 miles), it wasn’t really much of a camping trip.

Originally, I had planned to just go to Arizona. But then my BFF John found out I’d be in Phoenix, and he talked me into meeting him and his partner Joe in Tecopa, California. So I added that to my plan, with Tecopa first on my list of stops. Then my friend Jan found out I’d be in Tecopa, and she talked me into going to Palm Springs, where she and her wife Sue were spending a month. My friend Ranae lives in Arizona, and because Ranae, Jan, and I are old friends who hadn’t all been together since the early 2000s, Ranae decided to join us in Palm Springs. So my trip expanded, which turned out to be great.

I left Berthoud on Monday, February 3. For the previous week, I watched the weather forecasts carefully because I had to drive over Raton Pass that first day on my way to the California desert. Raton Pass is deceptive-looking. When the weather is good, it doesn’t seem like much of a pass. But when it’s snowing it can be deadly. I wanted to avoid that. I saw that it was supposed to start snowing in Berthoud about 4:00 a.m. on Monday and that the storm would move south, so I decided to leave quite early in the morning. I had planned to get up at 3:30, but as usually happens the night before a trip, I couldn’t sleep. I decided to just go ahead and get on the road. I went out to my van at 3:00 to find it covered in ice and the driveway slippery. I’m thankful I got an early start. It was sleeting in Berthoud and north Denver, but by the time I got to south Denver, the weather cleared up. Raton Pass was dry and sunny. Whew!

I had scoped out a place to camp the first night near Grants, NM, west of Albuquerque. The Joe Skeen campground is in the El Malpais National Conservation Area. I arrived there in the late afternoon, after stopping in Santa Fe for lunch. It was sunny when I parked. I made some dinner in the van and settled in for the night.

It was sunny and beautiful when I got into the campground.
This is a free campground, and it’s well maintained.
The view from my bed. It’s so cozy in my van, and I love the not-so-beautiful cabinet I made. It works perfectly for what I need.

In the morning I woke up to this. The temperature in the van got down to 32, which wasn’t all that bad. I had left the windows cracked, so there wasn’t any condensation inside. My combination of wool and down blankets works great in the cold.

I looked around the campground and didn’t see the other vehicle I’d spotted the night before.
I’m glad I brought an ice scraper!

It wasn’t as bad as it looked, though, and once I got to the interstate the roads were dry. My plan for that day was to drive up to a truck stop south of Las Vegas, where I was supposed to meet my friends John and Joe the next morning. I passed a quiet, if cold (32 degrees inside the van again), night there and then drove to a Walmart in west Las Vegas, where I met up with John and Joe. Our plan that day was to drive through Red Rock Canyon on our way to Tecopa, California.

This is where I stopped for the night. It was quiet because the big trucks had a different parking area.

I had never heard of Red Rock Canyon, but John and Joe had spotted it the other times they’d gone to Tecopa and had always wanted to visit it. I’m glad we did. It’s a beautiful canyon.

Red Rock Canyon–on the way from Las Vegas to Tecopa.

Then I followed the guys in their rental car to Tecopa (if I’d had just one more seat in the van they wouldn’t have had to rent a car). I’d never heard of Tecopa until John mentioned it. There’s nothing there. Nothing except mineral hot springs. Lots of hot springs. There are several RV parks, but John and Joe always stay at Delight’s Hot Springs, which also has small cabins you can rent. They rented a cabin, and I slept in my van.

I love how Delight’s has set up the hot springs pools. They have individual rooms that lock. Each has a shower. This is great for privacy, since I doubt anyone wears a bathing suit in the pools. You have a time limit of 30 minutes, which is more than enough. They empty the pools and clean them every night. Since there’s nothing anywhere near Tecopa except desert, it’s great for stargazing (no light pollution). The pool rooms don’t have roofs, so it’s great to relax in them after dark.

All the available water in the park comes from the springs. I brought a lot of water from home (I always carry a lot of water when I camp), and we used that for drinking and cooking. John said that you definitely don’t want to drink the mineral waters.

The view from John and Joe’s cabin (I was parked to the right). These buildings are the individual hot springs rooms as well as “cabins.”
This is a typical room. The water is wonderful!

While we were in Tecopa we took a couple of road trips. The first one was to Death Valley, somewhere I’d never been. It was incredible.

Joe takes his picture while I take mine.
Definitely the lowest I’ve ever been!
The rocky-looking stuff on the ground is salt. They call part of it The Devil’s Golf Course.
Zabriskie Point

The next day we drove to a nearby canyon called China Ranch that has a palm date grove. The canyon itself is really pretty, and I had my first date shake.

Colorful date palms. They grow several varieties.
John and Joe explore.

On February 9, John and Joe left to fly back to Santa Rosa, and I drove to Palm Springs, where I was meeting my two best friends from high school: Jan and her wife Sue, and Ranae and her husband Mike. Jan and Sue live in Vancouver, BC, and Ranae and Mike live south of Tucson. Ranae, Mike, and I rented an Air B&B, and Jan and Sue were doing a month-long home exchange in a condo. We all contributed to a great Mexican dinner that night. I brought Millberger Farms pinto beans and green chile (which I managed to keep frozen all that time), and Ranae brought tamales from Tucson. We had a nice dinner together, not knowing that Jan was already sick that day but not yet showing symptoms of what would be, for her, a very serious bout of flu.

The dinner we all contributed to. Pueblo chile!
Palm Springs is beautiful, but I have to wonder about all the water used for its lawns and golf courses (like so much of the southwest). We stayed in this golf-course community. They say the Colorado River is drying up. A lot of desert communities are going to have to give up their water-intensive landscaping.
The community had a LOT of pools. This one was right in our back yard.
The back of our condo. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to sit outside and enjoy the patio.

The following day Mike and Sue went hiking, and Jan, Ranae, and I walked around Palm Springs. What a great place! About 40% of the town’s population is LGBT, and I really liked the vibe. We stopped at a restaurant Jan likes to make a reservation for dinner for that night, but by the time we got back to Jan’s place, she already wasn’t feeling well. We decided to skip dinner that night.

Ranae (left) and Jan in downtown Palm Springs. The three of us met during our high-school years. Ranae and I went to the same high school, and she picked me up every morning in her little green VW bug. Jan has lived all over the place (Ecuador, France, Holland, Canada). We’ve come a long way since our days in Pueblo! It’s hard to tell by looking at Jan that she’d be sick that night.

The next day, Mike, Ranae, Sue, and I visited Indian Canyons, where we hiked the small one-mile loop of Andreas Canyon, which was formed by the San Andreas Fault. What a gorgeous place! I think we had the slowest hike in human history. Poor Ranae had her knee replaced last year, but it hasn’t healed well. It’s an easy hike, but there are a few places that are steep enough I was glad I had my cane (I left my trekking poles at home and brought the cane instead, which worked out well for this trip). Mike had to help Ranae quite a bit in these spots (she’s a trooper!), and while we waited for them, I sat on rocks to give my back a break. I had been taking a lot of photos with my phone, and rather than keep pulling it out of my purse, I put it in my coat pocket. One of the times I sat on a rock, I slipped (it had quite a tilt to it) and landed on my side—hard. My poor phone. The glass cracked, but the phone still worked, thankfully. I was able to get pictures of this incredible place.

I know nothing about palm tree varieties, but I was impressed with the beautify of the fan palms in this gorgeous canyon.
Friends Sue (in the blue jacket on the left) and Ranae (on the far right in the red jacket).

Jan didn’t go on the hike with us. She was feeling pretty sick that day. We dropped off Sue, said goodbye to the gals, and went back to our place. The next morning, I got up very early because I wanted to stop at Joshua Tree National Park on my way to Fountain Hills, AZ, my next stop.

It was dark when I left. We were staying in a gated community. I had only driven in once (following Mike and Ranae–after dark), and after that Mike drove whenever we left, so I hadn’t paid much attention to how he got out. Combine that with the darkness, and I got lost getting out of the community. I saw someone leaving through a gate, so I followed them, but then the second gate closed (I don’t know why there were two gates), and I was trapped. Turns out you had to have a transponder to open those gates. After about 15 minutes of me feeling like an absolute idiot, the security guard showed up (he saw me on the camera) and put me out of my misery by opening the gate for me. Sheesh.

I got to Joshua Tree early. The wind was blowing so hard I could hardly open the van door and it was really cold. I took some pictures but didn’t stay in the park all that long.

I arrived in Fountain Hills at the home of friends Dawn and Virginia, and by that time I was starting to get sick. I had a cough, felt weak and ill, and wheezed. Ranae and Mike reported that they were also sick. And poor Jan. Sue called Ranae in a panic because Jan couldn’t speak and kept passing out. Ranae told Sue to take her directly to the emergency room. It turns out she was dehydrated and needed some IV fluids. She went home later that night but was quite ill for the next week. Sue never got sick at all!

Virginia and Dawn had taken a day off work to spend with me, but I was too sick and spent most of the day in bed. So I didn’t do any sightseeing around Fountain Hills (I’ve been there before), but it was good to spend time with the gals, who are warm, lovely women. I met Dawn through my Kawasaki group, and we had some fun times together on our bikes.

I left Fountain Hills and drove to Gilbert to see an old friend I hadn’t seen in about 20 years—Kate, a gal I met when I lived in Oregon. We had a great time catching up. Her poor son’s ears were worn down by the time I left. I spent the night there and then headed to Green Valley, Mike and Ranae’s home, for the last part of my trip.

Mike and Ranae have a beautiful home. They live close to the Mexican border. As I drove into Green Valley, I wasn’t too impressed until I drove over a big hill and the view opened up. The mountains are beautiful, and their yard has an amazing view.

The view from Ranae’s back yard. They have lemon and grapefruit trees, and Mike sent me home with four huge bags of grapefruit. Delicious!

While I was there (only a couple of days), Ranae and I made a little road trip to Tubac, a colony that’s famous for its galleries. So many beautiful things from Mexican craftsmen to buy there. On our way back home, we stopped at a lovely little park where Ranae often walks. Everything in the park, including all the benches and artwork, is donated by local residents.

The Tubac market.
There are painted javelinas all over the market. I took photos of a few of them.
Ranae’s favorite park.

I chose to go to Ranae’s last because I figured I could wait it out there for a clear weather window. That was a bit complicated. I could see that a storm was coming to Raton Pass and southern Colorado, but I thought that if I drove close to Carlsbad Caverns, camped that night, spent the next morning at the caves, and then camped for the night afterward before heading home, I could miss the storm. I camped that night at a little state park about 40 miles from the caverns. I took the scenic route from Green Valley. It takes you past White Sands National Park and up over the mountains. Much better than driving through El Paso.

This was the primitive section of the park. There was also a fairly good-sized RV campground, but I didn’t want to park around a lot of people. This spot was perfect. I was all alone.
The view out my van window that night.

The drive from my campsite to the caverns was only about an hour, and I got there about 9:00. Carlsbad had a strong effect on me. I’ve always wanted to go because mom and dad went there for their honeymoon. It’s just far enough away from northern Colorado that you need two days to drive down, which is probably one reason I never went. So I was pretty excited about seeing the caverns.

I took the elevator down to the Big Room, which reminded me a bit of the time I took the elevator to the top of the old World Trade Center. The elevator displays how far down you’ve traveled as you go. When I first stepped into the Big Room, a wave of emotion flowed over me and I started to cry. Part of it was being overwhelmed by the cave. If you haven’t been there, it’s impossible to describe, and my inadequate photos do nothing to show its splendor. So that was part of it. But I also couldn’t get out of my head the thought of mom and dad at 19 and 20 years old, just married, madly in love, walking along the same path I was walking. (My parents had been married 62 years when my dad died. They had rough spells over the years, but they had a solid marriage and loved each other.) I couldn’t stop crying. Thankfully, there were few people in the Big Room while I was there. In fact, there were times when it felt a bit creepy because it was so dim in the cave and many times I couldn’t hear or see anyone else. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in there with no electric lights and only a kerosene lantern, as was the case for the first people who explored it. I was thankful for the railings and for my cane because it was difficult to see the ground at times, and it was wet in spots, of course.

These photos can’t begin to capture what it really looks like inside the cave. It’s so gigantic, and the light is dim. But I hope these give you an idea of what it’s like inside the caverns.

I had planned to camp that night, but being in the cave made me feel more sick. I think it was the mold and stuffy air. By the time I got out of the cave, I was having trouble breathing. So I drove to Roswell and got an inexpensive room. It was small, but it was clean and warm. I felt thankful to have a place to sleep and relax for a few hours.

I didn’t get as much rest as I had hoped, though, because it turned out that my room was a few hundred yards from a hospital’s helipad. There must be a lot of sick and injured people in Roswell because that helicopter took off and landed at least half a dozen times, the last time at 3:00 in the morning. I can’t describe how loud it was in my room. But the room was warm and cozy, for which I was grateful because I felt so sick. I wasn’t looking forward to the drive home in that condition.

Taken from my motel room door. It was LOUD! And they didn’t warn me.

So the next day I took my time and drove north to Raton and got a room at a motel, thinking that I would wait out the storm that was expected that night and drive over the pass the next day. As I got nearer and nearer Raton, I could see huge black clouds looming over the mountains. My timing was perfect.

My motel also had a Mexican restaurant. It turned out to be a good decision to stop there. I still wasn’t feeling well, so having a big warm room to rest in was a great thing. I had dinner in the restaurant. By the time I left the restaurant to walk back to my room, it was snowing pretty hard.

The next morning, I started checking road conditions about 5:00 a.m. I wanted to get through Denver before rush hour but I also didn’t want to drive on an icy pass. I had my free breakfast in the restaurant, then went back to the room and waited a while longer. By 10:00, the reports looked good, so I set off over the pass. The pass wasn’t icy in the right lane, so that’s where I stayed. The road was still wet, and the sun made it steam, which made visibility pretty poor. I drove past an accident that had just happened (police and ambulance were just showing up). Some poor woman had gone off the road and overturned. I saw a lot of cars that had gone off the road the night before, and I was thankful that I’d had the option to wait it out for the night. I took my time, and by the time I got to Trinidad, the roads were in good shape. I made it home by about 2:30, and the Denver traffic was fine. My van was absolutely filthy, though. As my son Topher told me, if it weren’t filthy, it would be a sign that I hadn’t had a good trip.

I’m glad I finally got away to the desert during the winter. This February has been one of the snowiest in our area for a while. It was great to be in the desert, wearing flip-flops, instead of wading through snow and dealing with the bitter cold. I plan to do this every winter for as long as I can.

Oh, my aching back!

A few days ago, I took out the rear bed platform and trimmed the mattress to fit the front platform. I’ll be sleeping sideways, and the mattress is about eight inches shorter than I am. It’s wide, though, and since I’m a side sleeper who curls up, I don’t think it’ll be a problem. Before I did this, I marked off the size of the new platform on my bed and stayed in that space for an entire night. It works.

Since that was done, I decided to build a cabinet for the rear of the van. I need some shelves and some countertop space. I need some sort of a night stand for my phone, tablet, water, lights, etc. I need some floor space, too. I sketched out plans for a little cabinet that would give me everything I need.

I’m cheap–plus this whole experience has been designed to travel as inexpensively as possible. I had some plywood left over from the bed platform, and I had some odd pieces of wood, like the top of a buffet that got broken during our last move. I decided to use only materials I already had, no matter how ugly.

The plywood is really rough. I thought about painting it, but it’s just too splintery. Then I remembered some self-stick linoleum tiles I had left over from a project, and I decided to cover the outside of the cabinet and the shelf with that. Of course, it doesn’t stick very well to rough wood, so I got some finish nails and tacked it down with those. It isn’t pretty, that’s for sure, but at least the tiles won’t fall off and I won’t get splinters when I rub up against the cabinet. 🙂

I put a towel bar on one end, and I screwed a bamboo serving tray to the top. This is where I’m going to keep my stove so it won’t slide around. I attached a couple of little baskets at the ends of the shelf and screwed on the fire extinguisher bracket.

I’m going to use some picture wire to create a barrier in front of the shelf and down near the floor so things can’t slide out when I’m moving. And then I’m going to cover the front with a curtain to hide my potty bucket.

I’m pretty happy with the results, even though it’s not very attractive, and the fact that I did the entire thing myself. The only thing I’m not happy about is the state of my back. I broke this project into two days to pace myself and had to stop every 30 minutes or so so I could sit down until the pain let up. I took a bunch of kratom yesterday, which usually helps my pain. But it didn’t do a damned thing. Today, I took a Norco before I even started, but by the time I finished I was in so much pain I could barely move. I’m going to pay the price for this tomorrow. This is the last building project I’m ever going to attempt. I just can’t do these things any longer. But I’m glad I got this one last thing done.

Here are a few pictures of the almost-finished project. I’m glad I got it built and in the van so I could get the car back in the garage before it snows. Hard to believe that we’re in for the mother of all storms this next week. It was 75 degrees today!

I’m going to get a soft, fuzzy throw rug to put on the floor.
It’ll look much better when I have the curtain on the front.
Because the bed is so high, it’s hard to get onto it from the sides of the van, as Alan and I discovered on our trip. I’ll enter from the back. There’s a strap I can use to pull the door closed once I’m inside. I

Fall Foliage Trip with the Hubby

This is the first trip that Alan and I have taken together in the van—and the first for me since I built the bed platform.

First of all, the bed is comfy and plenty big enough for us both, but the lack of headroom takes some getting used to. The first night I hardly slept. Alan’s snoring was pretty bad. But the second night I took a sleeping pill and had a weed gummy, and it was better. But the night after that, not a good night. Sleeping in the van with Alan gets mixed reviews. 🙂

One night I head my ear plugs in, as always when I sleep in the same room with Alan, and I heard a sound that I thought was either a helicopter overhead or a motorcycle. So I took an ear plug out, and I realized it was just Alan’s snoring, which was vibrating through the bed and sounded like an engine of some sort. Yikes!

So, anyway, about the trip itself…

We left Berthoud and headed toward Gunnison. We took a lot of pictures along the way. The aspens, even though not at peak that week, were fabulous. I found us a great campsite right next to a little creek. We were the only people there. 

This campsite was in a pretty little canyon. There’s no campground there, just places you can pull off the road. When we first got there, some fishermen were there, but they were already packing up, so we had the place to ourselves. Even though it’s right on the road, the site was pretty quiet. Most of the time all we heard was the creek.
Such a pretty spot.
Just some fall colors along our drive.

The next day we headed for Creede. Alan wanted to see that region because of the La Garita Caldera. That region experienced one of the largest volcanic eruptions in earth’s history.

I have a history with Creede. When I was a kid, some family friends of ours who had moved to Texas like to come up to Colorado in the summer and rent a cabin. A couple of summers we joined them. They loved Creede, so that’s where we met them.

Creede is a tiny little town. At one time it was a huge mining area. We decided to drive a loop road that would take us into an area of old mines. We didn’t realize that an active silver mine was up there—the Last Chance Mine. We stopped there, but it was toward the end of the day and there weren’t any more tours. So we decided to come back the next day. On the way back down the mountain on the long leg of the loop, we ran into a huge thunderstorm that included huge clumps of sleet that weren’t quite hard enough to form into hail. The picture below is from that loop road. All the mine buildings are part of the Last Chance Mine.

It turns out that the mine owner owns all the property above the tunnels, which basically means an entire mountain. The loop road is on his private property, but he graciously lets people drive on it and, in some cases, camp.

We camped that night right on the Rio Grand River. It got pretty cold that night, but then we were at 9,000 feet. The next morning everything was covered with frost. I still managed to wash my hair outside, though.

We had a gorgeous sunset that night.

That morning we headed straight for the mine so we could take the tour. What a great decision that was! It was a clear, beautiful day. The mine is incredible, and the owner Jack gives the tours himself. The story of the mine’s history, its fabled amethyst vein, and how Jack acquired it is too long to go into here, but I highly recommend you read the story here:

I was blown away by the experience of going down into the tunnels and seeing where the early miners excavated. There’s still as much silver in the mine as has been extracted in its history, but until the price of silver comes up, it’s not worth it economically for Jack to start mining again. Jack is not just a miner. He makes jewelry from the minerals that come out of the mine. It’s an amazing place. If you ever get to that part of Colorado, go visit it!

Driving up the hill to the mine.
Jack sells minerals and is creating a museum.
Jack at the entrance to the main tunnel. We went quite a bit deeper into the mine and were able to see some of the original tunnels that miners dug in the late 1800s.

The next day we drove to Durango and camped a few miles outside of town. We decided to spend the next day driving the loop from Durango up to Telluride and back down the Million Dollar Highway through Ouray. I’ve ridden over Red Mountain Pass on my motorcycle and been a passenger in a car driving over it, but I hadn’t driven the pass in a car myself until this trip. All I can say is that it’s far easier inside a vehicle!

Our campsite about 25 miles from Durango.

That night we decided to get a motel room in Durango because we had to be at the train station at 8:00 the next morning. I was also exhausted from lack of sleep. So I got a good night’s sleep that night, and we were able to take showers and take our time getting ready for the train.

This was my first time on the Durango-Silverton narrow-gauge railroad. I’ve lived in Colorado most of my life, but I’d never taken the trip. It was a lot of fun. We did the round trip, staying in Silverton for a couple of hours until the train trip back to Durango.

I have some great video of the train flushing its water tank just as we came around a bend, but I can’t find a way to load the video.
Stopping for lunch in Silverton.

On the first leg of the trip, a couple who sat next to us pointed out a campground as we passed and said that was their tent. I asked for the name of the campground (which was actually an RV park). We had planned to go to a dispersed site that night—the closest one I could find which was a 45-minute drive from Durango. But it was already 6:00 when the train got in, and I didn’t want to be driving around looking for a camping spot in the dark. So I called the RV park, and we got a tent site for the night. 

The next day we headed to New Mexico, on our way to Arizona to see the Petrified Forest National Park and then Meteor Crater. Alan has wanted to see Meteor Crater since he was a child. He’s been an astronomy buff his whole life and started building a telescope when he was a teen. So this had been on his bucket list for a long time.

On the way to the Petrified Forest, we passed through Aztec, NM, which I had never heard of. We saw a sign for Aztec Ruins National Monument. It seemed strange because it was right there in the middle of town, but we thought we might as well check it out. I’m glad we did.

A few of the many ruins.
This kiva was reconstructed based on the ruins of the ancient kiva on the site.

We decided to drive to the first part of the Petrified Forest National (the Painted Desert) and save the petrified forest and Meteor Crater for the next day. The Painted Desert is beautiful and reminds me of other similar parks I’ve been to (like the badlands in South Dakota).

We decided to get a room in Gallup because I was pretty exhausted. I did all the driving until part of the last day so Alan could take pictures as we drove. It was a good choice to get a room. Gallup is inexpensive, and we had some great Mexican food there for dinner. We decided to drive to Meteor Crater first, then stop at the petrified forest on the way back to Gallup. There isn’t much at Meteor Crater, but the crater itself is impressive. 

Meteor Crater, Arizona. It’s not the world’s largest impact site, by any means, but it’s the best preserved. It’s also important because it was here that Eugene Shoemaker (of Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet fame) and others helped prove conclusively that this crater–and others like it–was created by a meteor impact, not volcanic action, as had previously been thought. It’s also a cool place because the Apollo astronauts went there in the 60s and 70s to train for moon landings.

We headed toward the petrified forest stopping in Winslow, AZ, just long enough to get the iconic picture on the corner. I tried to take a selfie, but I couldn’t see the screen so it didn’t come out. 🙂 Alan took a picture of me standing next to the statue, but he hasn’t downloaded his pictures yet.

The Petrified Forest isn’t exactly a forest any longer, but the amount of petrified wood is mind-boggling. These trees lived during the Late Triassic period.

Again, we decided to spend the night at a motel in Gallup because we planned to drive all the way home the next day, and I needed sleep! We had another delicious meal (NM food is SO good) and went to bed early.

We didn’t take the usual route home (up I-25) because we didn’t want to hit Denver at rush hour. And who wants to drive up the interstate through a bunch of cities after being surrounded by nature for a week? So we decided to drive to Santa Fe (where we stopped for lunch) and then take 285 the rest of the way home. This route took us near Salida, where we saw the Decker fire burning and watched helicopters drop water and fire retardant on the fire. After we got home I read that the fire was only 5% contained. It’s been so dry and windy in that part of Colorado that it’s almost impossible to fight it. I hope they can contain it soon.

As I write this, the fire is only 14% contained, and 900 firefighters are on the scene. It’s only a couple of miles from Salida. There have been quite a few excavations.
We parked by the side of the highway and watched helicopters pick up water from a nearby pond and dump it on the fire. The smoke was heavy for many miles after we left the scene of the fire.

We hit Central City at dusk, which meant that we had to drive over Highway 72, a twisty road, in the dark. It was spooky. I was worried about deer, and we did see a huge elk at the side of the road at one point. I need to spend more time polishing the headlight covers on the van (or replace them). They’re not that bright, so we were definitely at a disadvantage. Thank goodness for brights! We took it slow and got home about 8:30, more than 12 hours after we left Gallop.

All in all, it was a great trip. We saw a ton of amazing scenery, and the mine and train were the highlights (for me, at least). But I’ve learned that we need to make some changes before I can travel for any length of time with Alan. I’m working on him to lose weight because I think that will help his snoring. I’m not sure what else I can do. Having to get motels so I can get some sleep defeats the whole purpose of having the van!

My next trip will be solo—to Arizona to visit four groups of girlfriends, then on to Tecopa, CA, to meet my old friends John and Joe at a hot springs there. I have to time this trip carefully because I have to drive over at least one pass. I have to pick the least potentially dangerous pass–probably La Veta. It definitely won’t be Raton or Wolf Creek!

I’ve also decided that for solo trips, I’ll take out half of the platform–the narrower part toward the end of the van. I measured off the size of the larger platform on my regular bed and realized I can easily sleep in the amount of space. And it will give me half the van’s interior to use the porta potty, get dressed, etc. I can put the other platform back in when it’s time for a couples trip. I’ll just need to get a twin mattress (probably not as high as the mattress that’s in there now) and trim about 12″ off the end. Easy peasy.

Next Trip

We’ve decided to leave on Thursday. We have no idea how long we’ll be gone, which is the beauty of these kinds of trips. The only thing we have scheduled, when we have to actually be somewhere at a particular time, is the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge RR, which we’re doing on Monday.

We’re going to head to Blue Mesa Reservoir/Gunnison first and do some exploring in that general area. Alan’s excited because that whole area is covered in volcanic calderas. Alan’s an amateur geologist, who reluctantly decided not to study geology in college because he knew that the field he ended up choosing (electrical engineering) would provide a better living. But he’s still obsessed with geology, and most of our trips include some sort of geological adventure.

After our day in Silverton and Durango, we’ll head east toward the Petrified Forest National Park and Meteor Crater. And who knows what we’ll do after that?

I’ll be taking my laptop with me so I can blog but I have no idea what sort of reception we’ll have on this trip. If I can post updates and pictures while we’re on the trip, I will. Otherwise, it’ll have to wait until we get home.

Thanks to my fabulous son Topher for holding down the fort while we’re gone.

Last Touches

I just finished the last little job on the van: attaching the fire extinguisher mount to one of the bed legs. Now I know exactly where it is in case I need it.

I still have quite a bit more space under the bed, which we’ll use for dry goods.

I also brought up the little, inexpensive electric cooler I got on a whim at Walmart a while back because it was on sale for next to nothing. We have a bigger one, but it’s way too big for this van. I didn’t think this one would fit (I knew it wouldn’t fit under the bed). But it does fit–just barely–at the end of the bed platform. Fortunately, there’s a 12V outlet in the back on the driver’s side, and the cord is plenty long enough to reach it. I used this cooler on my last trip. It only runs when the engine is running, but since I spend a lot of time time driving, it’s enough to keep the ice I also use from melting quite so fast. I put my ice in jumbo-sized ziplock bags to keep water from getting all over my food. So far this system seems to work pretty good.

I also organized all my bins. Now I have the fuel for my stove in its own little bin, also the washing/shampooing/grooming stuff. I have blankets and towels in another one. There’s a big one for our clothes. Another for cooking utensils, dishes, etc. And a separate small bin for the aeropress and a couple of plastic quart jars of coffee I grind at home before a trip.

That little black “suitcase” is my duel-fuel one-burner stove.
Blankets, towels and clothes.

I have a luggable loo, which I really like, but I didn’t like having to use a five-gallon bucket for it. I’ve been looking for a shorter version of the paint bucket (the lip has to be exactly the same for the luggable loo seat to snap onto it). I finally found one the other day, and I’m thrilled.

Plenty of room for all the luggable loo supplies, plus extra water.

There’s space under the bed between the front seats to store my Jackery portable power station and my backpack. It’s important to keep that area clear so I can get from the bed to the driver’s seat without any trouble.

The bed is really comfortable. I got some new pillows. And I cut down and hemmed the curtains that go behind the seats. I can’t think of anything else to do now but go on a trip. I’m waiting for Alan to decide exactly where he wants to go, but it looks like we’ll spend a few days in the San Juans before heading to Meteor Crater and the Petrified Forest National Park. We’ll probably stop in Taos and Santa Fe as well.

New Bed!

I spent this past weekend constructing the bed platform for my van. I did everything myself except Alan had to help me attach the legs because I somehow got shortchanged and don’t have three hands. 🙂 

I built it in two pieces because the back of the van, where the wheel wells are, is about six inches narrower than the front by the sliding doors. I bought some pieces of metal strapping to join them together, but it turns out I didn’t really need them. Better safe than sorry, though.

I got some cheap carpet tiles to put on top the plywood. I didn’t buy finish-quality stuff, so it had a lot of splinters. The carpet works just fine and is very thin so it doesn’t add to the height of the bed.

The platforms after I put the carpet tiles on.

It was a little tricky getting the two pieces into the van. I had the plywood cut at Home Depot, and the cuts were a little off (bigger rather than smaller), so the fit is pretty tight in the back. I discovered that I had to put the rear piece in first through the sliding doors and push it back, then put the larger piece in. But I got everything in by myself.

I’m happy with the way I organized the legs. In the front part, next to the sliding doors, the legs run down the middle from front of the van to back. This is so I have open access to slide my plastic bins in from the sliding doors. The legs on the rear piece are set up so I can slide long items in from the tailgate. I also made sure that no legs block the opening to the bed platform from the front seats. That way I can slide my backpack and whatever else I need easy access to under there.

Before I made up the bed and put the bins in. This front platform holds four large bins (two on each side) with room for other stuff as well. Notice the long curtains behind the seats. I’ll be shortening those later today.

I already had two mattresses. A twin memory foam mattress that’s six inches high and the tri-fold mattress I used on the cot in the van before. It’s less than four inches high, so I bought a two-inch topper and supplemented that with another piece of foam I had on the cot. The mattresses are level with each other, and the bed is really, REALLY comfortable. It’s be a bit tight when I’m traveling with Alan because it’s just a tiny bit bigger than a full. But when I’m solo it will be luxury.

Cutting the mattresses to fit.

I used an electric knife to cut the foam, and that worked perfectly. Unfortunately, I gave my old electric knife to the thrift store the last time we moved (I’d had it for 35 years and hardly ever used it). So I had to buy a new one, but I had enough points at Amazon that I didn’t have to pay for it. I guess I’ll keep this one. 🙂

I made up the bed this morning and tried what I’ve been worried about, given the height of this new bed. I was afraid that, with all my arthritis and bursitis, I’d have trouble climbing up on to the bed and, worse, getting from the bed to the driver’s seat in case of a nighttime emergency. But I practiced and I can do all of that without *too* much trouble. I’m not sure I’ll be very good at changing clothes on that bed, though. I can’t sit completely straight up because the Sienna doesn’t have a huge amount of headroom. But I think I can make it work.

It’s a good thing I decided to rehang the curtains. They’re above the level of the mattress now and won’t interfere with anything. I have to shorten the curtains that went behind the seats, and then I’ll be done. 

As for the issue of using the luggable loo, I still have to figure that out. With the single cot in the van, I could use it inside and have all the privacy I needed. That’s no longer going to work. I bought a popup shower tent for that purpose when I took my first camping trip in the Prius, and it’s a giant PITA. It’s supposed to fold back up into a circle, and I’ve read the instructions and watched the video a bazillion times. Even when I force it to fold, I can still barely squeeze it into its carrying case. But I think we might have to use it unless I can figure out some other kind of privacy screen. Or we can just always park overnight in the wilderness with no other people around and not worry about privacy. 🙂

One thing I’m happy about is that I finally found a shorter bucket for the luggable loo lid. The 5-gallon bucket is just so tall and unwieldy. I had looked at Home Depot and Lowe’s and was going to try going to a bakery, as some people had suggested. But I found one at Walmart yesterday. Yes!

Making some changes after my trip

I knew that my first real solo camping trip would help me iron out any changes I might need to make in the van and/or my equipment.

I’ve started making those changes.

I went over to Verizon and switched to them from T-Mobile. I have to pay more, but T-Mobile sucks. Seriously! During my trip I hardly ever had a cell signal and couldn’t get data most of the time. Unless I was on an interstate or in a bigger town, nothing, which wasn’t good since I was out in the middle of nowhere most of the time. I know Verizon is supposed to have the best coverage, so I’m going to give it a try. Let’s hope it’s better. It couldn’t be worse.

I decided to go ahead and  drill into the plastic sidewalls in my van to hang curtains. The way I had them hanging before worked, but I think I can make it better. Yesterday I drilled some pilot holes and screwed in some eye screws. They seem to be pretty secure, but I might put a little dab of epoxy on the screws, just to reinforce them.

I just came home from the lumber yard. The cot worked well for me, but Alan wants to go with me occasionally, and I learned on this trip that taking a tent for him to sleep in isn’t going to be the best option. So I’m going to build a platform for the van. I already have a twin mattress I can use, and combined with my tri-fold mattresss (and a topper I bought for it), I’ll just have to do a bit of trimming and I’ll have a bed between a full and a queen. When I’m solo, it’ll be luxurious. With Alan, well… it’ll be tighter than any bed we’re used to sleeping on together, and I’ll have to deal with Alan’s snoring (at home we sleep in different rooms on opposite sides of the house). But it will only be for short periods of time, so I think we’ll survive. I’m building the platform high enough that I can slide all my plastic bins under it. I’ll have a lot more storage than I did before.

So let’s hope I made all my measurements correctly. I’m going to start putting it together as soon as I finish the curtains. 

The other thing I did for the van was to take it to a muffler shop in my little town. The muffler dude was awesome! The van has had an annoying rattle since we bought it, and it drove me crazy on my trip. The check engine light came on, too, and was indicating that something was wrong with the catalytic converters. So I figured at least one of them was bad, and I was expecting a huge repair bill. Dan, the awesome muffler dude, had to spend some time finding the rattle because it doesn’t happen until the van is warmed up. In the meantime, he checked all the cats (all were fine) and the O2 sensors (also fine). The rattle? Turns out that when the exhaust got hot and expanded, a hanger rubbed against the hitch. That was it! Dan trimmed the hanger, and now all I have is blessed silence when I’m driving. And he didn’t charge me a cent. I’m so incredibly happy. I’m enjoying driving my van again.

My son also removed the running boards for me. One of them was already crooked, and I banged up the other one pretty good at a tricky campsite at Lake Pend Oreille.. They were hard to get off, but I’m so glad we did it. The insides were completely rusted and falling apart. Tons of tiny little pieces. The van looks so much better.

We only have one more thing to do and that’s to repair the speaker in the passenger door. My son is pretty sure it just needs new insulation. It’s a pain to take the door apart, but he just did that on his Toyota, so he knows what he’s doing. 

I’ll post pictures when I get the interior changes made.

Day Twelve—Beartooth Pass, Yellowstone, the Tetons, and home

After a yummy breakfast cooked by Larry Yung, proprietor of the great Alpine Lodge, I headed up over Beartooth Pass. I’ve ridden the pass about five times on my bike and driven over it in a car several times, but this is the first time I went over it by myself. I didn’t stop to take many pictures, but here are a couple. It’s an impressive pass and fun to ride on a bike.

Higher up the pass looking down onto the road I just drove up.
Another view of the road.

I went through Cooke City and on to the northeast entrance to Yellowstone. There wasn’t a single car there. None! I drove right up, handed over my senior park pass, and was on my way. I doubt that will ever happen again. 🙂

I also didn’t stop to take many pictures in Yellowstone. I took the eastern loop around the park, avoiding the tourist stuff, and then drove directly into the Grand Teton National Park.

It seems like every time I go through the Yellowstone the bison are congregating across the road right at this very spot. I think they get a kick out of causing a huge traffic jam. A lot of people were out of their cars, getting way too close to these giant beasts. They seem peaceful enough, but just this summer they’ve attacked people who got seriously hurt.
The eastern side of the park might not have all the tourist attractions, but you drive for a long time past Yellowstone Lake, which is huge and beautiful.
The lake.

I stopped to stretch my legs and decided to take a look at iOverlander. I had decided, prior to my trip, to go to a dispersed site outside Jackson. But it was quite a way off the road, and I was kind of tired of driving. So I decided to go to an iOverlander spot that overlooks the Tetons. Again, it was a dirt road, and parts of it were dodgy. But it was only about six miles up to the spot I picked. I was all alone there and it was so quiet and dark. I sat on my cot and looked out the window at the blackness and thought it was a fitting spot to spend the last night of my trip. There were signs warning about bears, but the only wildlife I saw was a chipmunk.

The incredibly beautiful Tetons.
View of the Tetons from my campground.
My free camp site outside Teton park. Notice the bear sign in the background. Not a bear in sight, though.

The drive home was long and tiring (isn’t the last leg of a trip always that way?). I wanted to go south on smaller state highways instead of going out to Casper and taking the interstate all the way. Maybe I should have done the latter. I was trusting my instincts on which way to go (south) but they didn’t serve me well at one point, and I ended up going 30 miles out of the way. The only good thing about that is that I had breakfast at the little town where I had to turn around and retrace my path. Ugh. But I made it home safe and sound. The van was absolutely covered in bugs, dirt, and mud, and I prayed to Joe Pesci on the way home to give me a good hard rain to wash it off a bit. He came through! When I turned off onto 287 at Laramie, I drove into a downpour that lasted for about 30 miles. Thank you, Joe! Just as George Carlin promised, he comes through for me about half the time.

I drove 3700 miles on this trip and covered five states and one Canadian province. It was a good trip, and I look forward to many more in my trusty Sienna.

Day Eleven–To Red Lodge

I’ve been to Red Lodge many times. We’ve made the trip on our motorcycles (from northern Colorado) about half a dozen times, and we’ve driven it several times. But I’ve never approached it from this direction. We usually have to drive north through Wyoming. But this time I was coming from Glacier, and the trip was unique (for me). Lots of rolling prairie, and no traffic whatsoever. When I got about 20 miles from Red Lodge on 212, though, I ran into construction. A few miles (no idea how many) of the road torn up so completely that we had to follow a pilot car (it reminded me of a motorcycle trip through Yellowstone with the same thing, riding over rocks the size of softballs—scary). I didn’t even make it to the Alpine Lodge (owned by our friends Larry and Trish—where we have stayed for many years) because I saw the Red Lodge Ales has a new brewery, beer garden, and kitchen! I had to stop, of course. I sat there for two hours, reading Facebook, updating my blog, and drinking beer. It’s hot, and although the Alpine has an awesome covered patio, I wasn’t too keen on sitting outside in the heat.

Nice, but it can’t compete with City Star (even though City Star doesn’t have a kitchen).

But now I’ve arrived and am parked in the rear of the property. Larry and Trish have added some new bathrooms for people who rent their teepees (yes, real teepees, but outfitted with luxury bedrooms). I had a nice shower, and now it’s cooled down. I have the fan going in the van, with the windows down a bit (plus I’m in the shade), and I’m sitting on the patio writing this and drinking a Twisted Tea.

Last night I decided to stay at a rest stop because it came recommended by a web site I use. Yes, it was convenient—right off I-15—and it had clean bathrooms and free WiFi. But as I soon discovered, it was populated by about a dozen big rigs, half of whom kept their engines running all night—right outside my van. I was trying to watch YouTube videos (using the free WiFi!) but the trucks were so loud I knew I’d never fall asleep. I had ear buds, thank goodness, so I kept those in all night. I don’t think I’ll do that again, unless I have to. It’s convenient, but too noisy for me.

Day Ten—Glacier National Park

I stopped in Libby for breakfast before heading to Glacier. It’s crazy, but I wasn’t able to get a signal anywhere. When I get home, I’m going to look into changing from T-Mobile to Verizon. This is ridiculous. T-Mobile works fine for me 90% of the time, but it’s the other 10% I worry about.

I might also invest in a SPOT satellite messenger (my friend Carlo has one). Years ago, when i was attempting to hike the Colorado Trail, I got a SPOT device that was only useful as an emergency signaler. But the new messenger lets you text people, so I could keep in touch with my family (or contact AAA, if needed) anywhere I am. It’s expensive, but if I keep doing these solo trips, it would probably be a good investment.

For instance, my spare tire is inaccessible if I get a flat on this trip. Alan got under there and tried to loosen the bolt that holds it on, but he couldn’t get it off. I figured I could call AAA if I had a problem, but if I don’ have a signal, I can’t call AAA, right? Sheesh.

The drive through Glacier was impressive. The Going to the Sun road starts out (from West Glacier) as a nice, twisty road among the trees and past lakes and waterfalls, but then it changes to an extremely narrow road with barely room for two cars. I saw a dude riding a bicycle up that road. I wouldn’t have the nerve.

Something was going on with my phone. A lot of pictures have a white streak across them. I attribute this to the talk about spirit creatures that I had with Carlo and Tracy when I was in Penticton. 🙂 Actually, much of the time I was taking pictures into the sun, so I tried to block the sun with my hand. I don’t think it worked very well. So the pictures I’m posting here are the ones that didn’t get ruined. I stopped often to get out, stretch my legs, and just look around.

What a beautiful road! And it doesn’t take a long time to drive it, either, even if you’re getting out of the car every 10 minutes like I did. The park was crowded, though, even though it was after Labor Day. I can’t imagine it during the summer. I collected my NP pin! (I have a collection.) 

Lake Left Behind
McDonalds Waterfall
Starting onto the Going to the Sun Road (from West Glacier).